Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective at Tate Modern, review

The horrors of Arshile Gorky’s childhood in Armenia paved the way to greatness in America.

February 8, 2010
Source: The Telegraph (London)

By Richard Dorment

The real name of the painter known to the world as Arshile Gorky was Manoug Adoian. He was born in the western part of Armenia to a family of prosperous Christian traders. One morning, when he was about five years old, his father took his son and daughter to a field by a lake. There they sat on the ground, sharing a last meal before his father emigrated to America, where, he promised, they would join him soon. Before kissing his children goodbye, he presented his son with a pair of pointed wooden shoes, traditional footwear for Armenian men.

But the years went by and his father didn’t send for them and didn’t return, in effect abandoning his wife and children not just to hardship, but to mortal danger. In 1915 the Turks began their campaign of extermination against Christian Armenians, and more than 1.5 million people were either massacred or died during deportation. Amid horrific violence, the young family fled for their lives, making their way on foot to Russian Armenia 150 miles away. In the winter of 1918-19, temperatures sometimes dropped to -30C. Manoug’s mother lay down on the floor of a derelict house and died in the arms of her 15-year-old son. She had starved to death.

In 1920, through the generosity of a relative, the children reached America, where in due course the exiled painter would draw on imagery culled from memories of his boyhood to forge a new language of lyrical abstraction. It was a long time before he could confront his past, but when he did he lit the way for two generations of American artists.
To make sense of the magnificent retrospective of his work at Tate Modern, go straight to gallery seven, where you will find both versions of The Artist and his Mother, an image that distils the experience of the millions of immigrants who made their way from the old world to the new in the early years of the past century. Based on a black-and-white studio photograph taken in Armenia in 1912, it shows Manoug and his mother posing stiffly in front of the camera like figures in a Byzantine icon. The little boy stands like a bridegroom at his mother’s side, wearing a coat with a velvet collar and shyly holding a bouquet of flowers. Seated next to him, monumental as a Madonna by Giotto, his mother wears the traditional Armenian head scarf and long apron. His round eyes look out pleadingly, hers are full of accusation.

Manoug’s mother had gone to the expense of having the photograph taken to send to her husband in America, a reminder of his family’s existence. The person to whom Manoug offers the bouquet is his absent father. Both versions are unfinished. Was it that Gorky could not bear to let his mother go a second time? Or did the picture bring back too many painful memories and too much anger to work on for long periods? His pseudonym, after all, is the Russian word for “bitter”.

At the beginning of his career, Gorky painted dead pastiches of Cézanne, Picasso, Léger, and Miró, remarkable mainly because he knew the European modernists he was imitating only through the few examples of their work he could see in New York, or from black-and-white reproductions in art magazines. For me, the most interesting thing about these pictures – far too many of which are included in the exhibition – is what they tell us about the mind of the artist, who applied paint to his canvases so thickly that their surfaces feel airtight, closed shut, lifeless.

In an important series of black-and-white drawings in pencil and pen-and-ink from the early 1930s called Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia, Gorky combines the biomorphic shapes of Miró and Picasso with the Surrealist imagery of de Chirico. But Gorky was always a superb draughtsman, and the most beautiful works in the series are drawn with dense hatching to create an overall black tonality, from which amoeba-like organisms that suggest nascent eyes, mouths, lips and breasts struggle to emerge. For the first time we sense that the difficult-to-decipher imagery has some deeply personal meaning for the artist – that it comes from some dead zone of memory and feeling in his unconscious.

His meeting with the European Surrealist artists in New York in the early 1940s was the catalyst that enabled him to break free from the stifling influence of Picasso and Miró. From the moment he found the courage to look inside himself for his subject matter, he also found a new painterly freedom. The series Garden in Sochi (1940-41) is still stylistically dependent on Miró, but its imagery is drawn from childhood memories – the family’s sunny garden, the butter churn and plough, a rug, a butterfly, a tree’s branches hung with strips of fluttering cloth, and the Armenian slipper his father had given him that long-ago morning.

By unlocking memories of his childhood, Gorky opened himself up to the world around him. His colour-filled semi-abstract landscapes from the 1940s are filled with animal, bird and insect life. Their joy and sensuality reflect the personal happiness he found in marriage and a new life outside New York. They can combine eroticism and playfulness with a sometimes sinister undertow that you don’t find elsewhere in American art from this time.

In Love of the New Gun, for example, he uses swift sweeps of a brush dipped in grey and black paint with the assurance of a master calligrapher to summon up a landscape that you just know is alive with birds and insects. But since their presence is indicated by a snatch of green plume, a glimpse of yellow breast, a black beak, or an open wing, it is very hard to say exactly why these incomplete shapes represent birds. Then you spot the smears and drips of red paint and the title tells you the rest: this is what remains of the beautiful creatures the hunter has just shot with his brand new weapon.

In other works, spidery calligraphic lines create biomorphic shapes that feel as though they are in perpetual movement, while washes, drips and smears of colour suggest second thoughts and erasures. The canvas has become a palimpsest in which feelings and memories stir only to be buried again in an endless cycle of consciousness and repression.

Gorky’s life started and ended in tragedy. Just as he began to receive critical recognition, a series of personal disasters took away everything he valued in his life – his work, his health and his family. First, a fire in his Connecticut studio destroyed a lifetime’s drawings and paintings. Then an operation for cancer that required a proud, handsome, and fastidious man to wear a colostomy bag broke his spirit. A late picture entitled Charred Beloved evokes the fire’s aftermath in black paint over raw canvas. But it is also one of the most shockingly intimate self-portraits ever painted, for the rivulet of scarlet paint inside an intestine-shaped blob must refer both to rectal bleeding and post-operative pain, while black smudges evoke both human waste and the cancer that had invaded his body and made him feel unclean. After the collapse of his marriage and a car crash that left him in agony, he could take no more. On July 20, 1948, Gorky hanged himself.

What a loss. Gorky was the link between European Surrealism and American Abstract Expressionism. The passion, enigma and autobiographical dimension of his work would find their way into the art of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and, above all, Cy Twombly.

Do go to this show, but be warned that it is huge. Take a look at the early galleries, but remember that all the best paintings date from the 1940s.

Art Critic